British rule united India and expanded its borders better than any Mughal emperor. At the same time, when it was persuaded to hurriedly quit India, they left behind a legacy of not merely a botched partition, but unfinished business on its frontiers. These included contentious situations with China.
Independent India was born out of a non-violent struggle. Therefore, militarisation was not its mantra. In contrast, the People’s Republic of China emerged from a bloody civil war over a 22-year period, which killed an estimated 13 million people.
While ensuring everlasting freedom was precious for both, communist China was prickly about foreign powers (because it had been controlled or occupied by several such in the 19th and 20th centuries), thus insecure; and this translated to a military build-up post haste. The communists were also fierce nationalists and tapped into this characteristic in Chinese society in general to fix an agenda to recover territory and interests they felt had been usurped from them, including unsubstantiated claims.
Bluntly put this reflected a hegemonistic design. China has had land or sea disputes with the Soviet Union, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India and multiple countries in the South China Sea, where a United Nations tribunal ruled against it in 2016.
The Communist Party of China declared its people’s republic in 1949 after driving out its Kuomintang opponents from the Chinese mainland and restricting them to the island of Taiwan. Within a year of its advent, it despatched troops to Tibet and annexed it, despite, arguably, only having suzerainty, not sovereignty over it.
The seat of Nalanda Buddhism and spirituality was defenceless and consequently a soft target. It didn’t cost the Chinese economy much to overrun this land, which created a 3,500 kilometre border with India.
It then challenged the demarcation between Tibet and India drawn by British India’s foreign secretary Henry McMahon in 1913-14. China signed a draft of a tripartite accord involving Delhi, Lhasa and Beijing agreeing to this boundary, but when it came to ratifying it, didn’t show up. Now, having conquered Tibet, China demanded transfer of a significant chunk of India’s North East Frontier Agency (NEFA) area, now known as Arunachal Pradesh, which it defined as “South Tibet”, thereby dismissing the McMahon Line.
Significantly, the Chinese invasion of India in October 1962 transgressed the very swathe of soil they conjured as theirs. This was undoubtedly a jolt for India’s founding Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, who had invested considerable capital in forging Asian and developing world solidarity with China.
It is not that Nehru didn’t foresee Mao Zedong as potentially troublesome. The landmark Panchsheel Treaty of 1954 reflects every bit of this concern as it tied down Beijing to the virtues of “mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty”, “mutual non-aggression”, “mutual non-interference”, “equality and mutual benefit” and “peaceful co-existence”. China represented by Premier Zhou Enlai in Delhi readily accepted the agreement; indeed,it still consistently trumpets it through its mouthpiece Global Times. But Mao betrayed Nehru’s trust.
It’s worth a reminder that Chinese forces retreated as rapidly as they had penetrated into NEFA, under international pressure. Nehru’s non-alignment as a fundamental principle of foreign policy or equidistance from the Cold War between East and West was unappreciated by both the superpowers of that period, the United States and the Soviet Union. But such was the Indian prime minister’s stature in the world, the respect for his goodwill, intellect and vision, that neither withheld assistance when India was in peril.
It is unforgivable that the British Raj, which continued up to 1947, did not pin down China to re-confirm what it had agreed to, namely the McMahon Line and its suzerainty, not sovereignty over Tibet. To make matters worse, David Miliband, British foreign secretary in the government of Prime Minister Gordon Brown, told the House of Commons in 2008 that the understanding was “an anachronism”, thereby diabolically disowning a pact Britain had negotiated and sealed.
Upon occupying Tibet, China in the 1950s almost clandestinely constructed a 1,200 kilometre road joining Xinjiang and western Tibet, of which approximately 180 kilometres traversed through Aksai Chin. India did not come to know of this development until 1957.
Nehru signalled to the Chinese, Aksai Chin was a part of the Ladakh region of India and “not open to discussion with anybody”. Certainly Ladakh was seized by Raja Gulab Singh under the suzerainty of the Sikh Empire; and after two years of warfare, he and the Tibetans signed a treaty in 1842, which decided to abide by “old, established frontiers”. The British subdued the Sikhs in 1846 to control the Jammu and Kashmir region, including Ladakh, with Singh remaining the ruler, indeed being elevated to the status of maharaja.
Zhou replied the border in the area had never been delimited and had been left within his country’s borders by an 1899 proposal of British officials George Macartney and Sir Claude MacDonald. China, though, never responded to this, so, British India reverted to the original frontier delineated by William Johnson and Major General John Ardagh in 1865. The Chinese had no jurisdiction over this part of Xinjiang at the time; so, the Line was not presented to them. Another instance of the British leaving behind a border definition in a messy manner. The Chinese are in Aksai Chin by might, not right.
Former Indian foreign secretary, who was also ambassador to China, Nirupama Rao, has echoed what this writer has maintained all along, that the aggressive behaviour of Xi Jinping is “a personal message to Modi”.
Besides, his flawed foreign policy has isolated India. None of its neighbours has sided with it, not to mention the neutrality of the other P5 countries.
The British foreign office, for instance, issued a standard statement, which said: “We encourage China and India to engage in dialogue on issues relating to the border – the UK wants to see a peaceful resolution of the current situation.” The method under Modi is to buy support from a major power by guaranteeing it a defence order, whether this is affordable or not. This is why Defence Minister Rajnath Singh rushed to Moscow.
India cannot afford a battle, let alone a war, with China. Such hostilities are economically crippling. Modi had run the Indian economy into the ground much before Covid-19 struck. The devastating impact of the health emergency since renders its state considerably worse.
Xi read Modi’s fragility and exploited it ruthlessly.
Panchsheel is dead, as are the Deng-Rajiv entente and P V Narasimha Rao’s Peace and Tranquillity Treaty.